After months of treating COVID-19 patients, Dr. Carlos Araujo-Preza became infected with the coronavirus.
Following a weeklong hospital stay, the critical care medical director at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball found the strength to roll out of his own bed and brush his teeth, tasks he had not been able to easily accomplish at the hospital.
Pained and distressed, he told his daughter, Andrea Araujo, he was thankful: He had not been intubated and, having treated patients with the same infection, he knew the likelihood of someone surviving dropped after they were placed on a ventilator.
Andrea told him she loved him and that she was glad he was home. It would be among the last words the two exchanged as his condition worsened, forcing him back into the hospital less than two days after being released in early November. He died Nov. 30, about a week before his 52nd birthday.
“It’s been tough,” Andrea, 22, said. “Definitely grieving. But also we know that my dad would want me to keep on going.”
From El Salvador, where Araujo-Preza was born, to different corners of Texas, former patients are mourning the death of a doctor who they say always gave all of his attention and care. Colleagues recall him as a doctor whose admirable passion and selfless energy made working beside him a pleasure. And his family is mourning the death of its patriarch.
“Even now, as I struggle to come to terms with the fact that the love of my life is no longer here with me on this earth, I find comfort knowing that Carlos died by his own terms,” his partner, Paige King, wrote in a Facebook post. “He sacrificed himself in order to save the lives of others.”
Araujo-Preza earned a medical degree in El Salvador; a school classmate there wrote, simply, “mente brillante,” which translates to brilliant mind, in responding to an inquiry about him. Araujo-Preza moved in 1994 to New York. Four years later, he completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Staten Island University Hospital.
“All his patients loved him,” said Dr. Eduardo Chang, whose friendship with Araujo-Preza started in 1998 when the two began attending Tulane University in New Orleans and extended to The Woodlands, where the two worked for nearly the last 20 years. “Excellent physician, very dedicated.”
When not at his practice, Araujo-Preza conducted rounds at area hospitals, some days waking at 3 a.m., Andrea said. But he never minded or complained, even as he logged 80-hour workweeks.
“He loved his medicine,” she said. “That was his passion.”
Tara Ward, who runs a medical insurance reimbursement company, Texas Billing Associates, in Richmond, said patients of Araujo-Preza’s with whom she spoke in nearly 20 years of working with him “never had a negative word about him.”
“He was amazing, he was selfless, giving,” she said, reminiscing how no birthday escaped Araujo-Preza’s recognition and how he invited colleagues and friends to gatherings that celebrated those birthdays or holidays.
Conversations that started with business, without fail, ended with personal updates, Ward remembered. “How’s your family?” he would eventually ask, regardless if they were texting or chatting in person.
“He always thought about everyone else,” she said. “If you ever had a question, whether he had the answer or not, he would find it.”
And his assistance stretched beyond his patients or the walls of whatever medical facility he was in.
A few months ago, in late June, for example, Philana O’Rourke, the cousin-in-law of his respiratory therapist, became infected with COVID-19 in North Texas, O’Rourke said.
Her cousin-in-law worried. She asked O’Rourke: Would it help to consult Araujo-Preza?
“At first I was like, ‘Yes please,’” O’Rourke said.
Without hesitation, the doctor availed his knowledge and took interest in O’Rourke’s nasty, ongoing battle, she said, as she’s become grouped with what other medics consider a “long hauler,” one who is sick with the infection for months.
First get an oximeter, he advised.
“If it goes below 90, go to the hospital,” he continued.
“He wanted to make sure I knew I was going to be OK,” O’Rourke said.
As O’Rourke’s struggle with the infection persisted, so too did his support and reassurances. A few weeks ago when O’Rourke got pneumonia, she consulted him again. Get a humidifier, Vicks VapoRub for the chest and breathing treatment, he advised this time, already infected himself but dispensing any help he could offer.
“No matter what time a day or no matter what time a night … he was always just so quick to respond, so genuinely cared,” O’Rourke said. “He was a great critical care doctor in one of the worst times of the world and he still had time for someone like me.”
“To me it just spoke volumes to what kind of person he was,” she added.
Among the few activities that could interrupt that strong work ethic and compassion was soccer — and his beloved Real Madrid. A few times, Araujo-Preza canceled clinic hours to ensure he could watch a big game, his daughter Andrea said. A soft smile pushed his cheeks up when he posed next to a framed jersey of Sergio Ramos, who captains the team as well as the Spanish national squad, in a photo Andrea shared with a Houston Chronicle reporter.
As much as he was a caring physician, he was a caring father as well, Andrea said.
When she was away in college, he would sometimes trek to Waco when her sorority hosted events. He insisted on driving back the same night, calling himself a “road warrior.” When he wasn’t flooded with work, he enjoyed watching films — horror and action among his favorites — at movie theaters with his son, who shared his name, Carlos Ernesto Araujo Jr.
And like he did with his patients and colleagues, he imparted wisdom to his children, too.
“Tomorrow the sun will rise, so take it day by day,” he would tell Andrea whenever she confided in him a struggle.
As the number of COVID-19 patients increased in the spring, Araujo-Preza doubled down. In Andrea’s recollection, he slept at the hospital the entire month of April.
“He was very much on the front line,” she said. “He could have asked for a day off … (but) he was never afraid of COVID. He would say he was born for this.”
By May, Araujo-Preza sounded optimistic when he safely discharged the first patient to receive a convalescent plasma transfusion as part of a study.
“The hope is that once we have identified the proper candidate and the exact time at which these should be given to the patient, we will be able to prevent serious illness, organ dysfunction and rapid resolution of symptoms,” he told a reporter in Tomball at the time.
But the pandemic continued to rage, killing more than 20,000 people in Texas by early December and more than 1.5 million across the globe.
Signs that something was wrong appeared the second day Araujo-Preza was home following his first hospital stay, Andrea said. His vision became blurry. An eye hurt. His speech began fading into a slur.
He returned to the hospital. With a shortness of breath, Araujo-Preza stayed in touch by text. But looking at a screen didn’t help his eye pain. Soon the texting stopped.
About a week later in mid-November, he was transferred from the Tomball hospital to Houston Methodist. Three days after the transfer, Andrea recalled, he was placed on a ventilator.
This time, he was never discharged.